Saturday, August 8, 2009

Another Frugal Food Experiment: Poor Man's Ricotta Cheese

Last week I subjected my whole family to the Poor Man's (Turkey) Burger. All the burger- eaters seemed to like it just fine. This week, I have been trying to use up random food in the house without buying more (well, apart from crazy Shaw's stockpile runs) because we're going away and I don't want things in the fridge to go to waste.

Anyway, I had this idea to make stuffed manicotti, only I didn't have any ricotta cheese. What I did have is a large zucchini. When I was a teenager I started making a vegetarian lasagne recipe that involved shredding zucchini and mixing it with the ricotta cheese. I have made this for years now, and no man, woman, or child of any age who has ever consumed it has ever noticed or complained, because it is tasty and no one notices the zucchini.

Well, today, I wondered, what would happen if you just had the zucchini, and no ricotta cheese whatsoever? Such as, right now? I was going to try.

Manicotti Stuffed with Kale & Zucchini

1 package manicotti
2 cups kale, washed and torn
1 large zucchini
5-6 leaves fresh basil, chopped (or dried, if you don't have fresh)
dash pepper & salt
2 tbsp grated Parmesan
1 jar pasta sauce
1/2 cup shredded cheese
a little fresh parsley (optional, but you knew that)

I also had some random beans from my garden. They are completely unnecessary in this recipe.

  1. Prepare the pasta according to package directions. In a separate pan, steam or boil the kale. Meanwhile, grate your zucchini. I always use a regular cheese grater, but it takes a long time and makes my hand hurt. I'm sure a food processor would be faster. I got one at my bridal shower, but have yet to remove it from its box. I'm sure I'll use it someday.
  2. Add pepper, salt, basil, and parmesan to the zucchini mixture. Drain the kale well and stir in with the zucchini. If the mixture seems overly runny, you can strain off any liquid, but I didn't bother.
  3. Put a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of a 13 x 9 pan. Stuff the manicotti. I wasn't sure how to do this. I tried using my fingers. Most of the manicotti had tears in it, anyway, so I ended up just splitting them open, putting the filling inside and closing them back up. I guess I wasn't the first person with that idea. Arrange the manicotti semi-neatly in the pan. (I threw the beans on the top. Just ignore them.)
  4. Pour rest of sauce over pasta and top with cheese and fresh parsley. Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 1/2 hour.

This was a very happy cheapskate meal. The zucchini was .50 a pound, the manicotti was reduced to .50 as well, the sauce I stockpiled for next to nothing, and the kale was .69/lb. The basil was free from the garden (along with the random beans that I threw in there. I had to do something with them) and the cheese was probably the most expensive thing, maybe .75 worth? We had it with some salad and slices of homemade bread. This meal probably cost $3.00 total, plus it made leftovers.

And- everyone liked it! The kids asked a couple of times, "What are the noodles full of?" and my husband said, "It doesn't matter. It's good, so eat it." And they did. I didn't think it tasted like cheese or anything, but grated zucchini is definitely a satisfactory pasta filling on its own. Another successful frugal food experiment... I'm on a roll!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pork Chops are Peachy: Shaw's Bargain Meal

Okay, I just explained my thought process when I try to come up with a Bargain Meal of the Week. I just looked at my Shaw's flyer, saw that Pork Chops were 1.69/lb and peaches are .77/lb. I would never think to put those two things together. And yet, lo and behold, the internet bursts forth with all kinds of recipes involving peaches and pork! Apparently this is a classic flavor combination, like pineapples and ham, or apples and pork, or raisins and pork... hmmm... maybe pork just goes well with fruit, in general?

Peachy Mustard Pork Chops
seems like a good, basic recipe to start with- I imagine you could substitute the peach preserves with some fresh peaches that were chopped up and mashed a little bit. You could serve it over some hot rice with a little butter and salt. If you want fast, Shaw's has Kraft Minute Rice (does it really only take a minute?) on sale for 1.89/box, or if you have more time, Shopper's Value Long Grain Rice is 2.99 for 5 lbs.

I will be taking my Shaw's bargain shopping on the road this week- we are going on vacation Saturday! We rented a house near Acadia National Park in Maine, and I was so thrilled to learn that there is a Shaw's (and a Hannaford's) close by so I can pick up some perishables. (I'm bringing non-perishable stuff that I've stockpiled with me, of course.) I wish there were more types of meat on sale this week... it will be hard for me to pay more than 1.99/lb for meat. (But making dinner ourselves for eight people will be a lot cheaper than going out to eat every night! I have to remind myself of that. )

Strawberry Balsamic Chicken: S&S Bargain Meal of the Week

So, my thought process when trying to come up with bargain meals is, "What meat is less than 1.99 a pound?" and "What in-season produce is on sale this week?" Then I'll do some curious Googling and try to come up with an interesting way to use those ingredients that doesn't seem too time-intensive or use a bunch of crazy ingredients (because it's tough to be a frugal cook who is looking for unusual ingredients every week.)

This week's recipe seems to be a step up from the simple family meal- it sounds like it would be nice to serve for guests. But, you know, you should never serve a new recipe for guests- you always have to try it out yourself first. So why not try this out on your family? With boneless chicken breast on sale for 1.79/lb and strawberries on sale for 3 for $5 ($1.67 per 1 lb. container,) Strawberry Balsamic Chicken sounds perfect. Another key ingredient is strawberry yogurt; S&S brand yogurt is on sale for 8 for $4 (.50 per container.) Since you need 4 containers, this isn't going to end up being a $5 dinner, but for a fancier meal, it's still quite affordable. Most of the other ingredients are pantry staples, and if you don't have a particular herb or spice, you can just omit it. (I have parsley growing on my doorstep, but not mint, so I'd probably leave the mint out.) I won't have a chance to try this recipe this week- we're going on vacation- but I definitely want to try it out soon. Let me know if you try it and like it!

S&S brand Garden Salad is 1.29/bag, so you can serve that with whatever veggies you might have around, and some bread or rice would round out the meal. Not a $5 dinner, but not too shabby!

Monday, August 3, 2009

An Unfrugal Mistake, or How I Paid $127.50 to Have Four Bags of Trash Taken Away

My husband and I had a dilemma about a month ago and we weren't sure how to resolve it. We live in a town with no townwide trash pickup. You either have to pay a company of your choosing to pick up your trash, or you can purchase a dump permit and bring all your trash and recycleables to the dump yourself.

Since we have lived in our house, we (and when I say "we," I mean "he") have been bringing our trash to the dump ourselves. It isn't that bad. We can recycle all kinds of paper, plastic containers except styrofoam, metal, and glass. I have bins in a kitchen closet to keep rinsed-out containers and stacks of paper to be recycled. The only things that we actually throw away are things like plastic outer wrapping, weird containers that we can't figure out how to recycle, and gross things like tissues and meat containers. We throw all our food scraps in a compost pile. So we fill a trash bag *maybe* once a week.

(Our town had decided to institute a "pay as you throw" program where you'd have to pay $2 per bag of trash you threw out. We thought that was a great idea, because we'd end up paying maybe $100 a year to get rid of our trash. However, plenty of other people protested and so they went back to the old system.)

So what's the problem? Well,we found out my husband would be deploying overseas with the military at some point during the winter. He thought that it would be a good idea to hire a trash pickup company so that I wouldn't have to worry about dealing with the trash when I was running the household by myself. In theory, this seemed like a good plan. During the school year, when I'm working, I get very stressed when my to-do list starts to get too long. Keeping things as simple as possible seemed like a good idea. Plus, the trash is kind of gross, and I didn't want to put it in my nice pretty car, and we were planning on taking my husband's truck off the road while he was away. So, we reasoned that the cost of the trash pickup was balanced out by not having to pay insurance on the truck.

Since the dump permit was supposed to renew on July 1st, my husband called to start trash pickup now. The cost difference is significant. Trash pickup costs $75 per two month billing cycle, plus a $15 fuel surcharge, so it's basically $45 a month or $540 a year. (We did not know about the fuel surcharge until we actually got our bill.) The dump permit costs $178 a year, or $14.83 per month.

Once we had signed up, it was a couple of weeks before the trash company gave us our special giant barrel- it's nice and huge and sturdy and squirrelproof, and has wheels. It looked awfully silly to put our lone bag of trash inside this giant receptacle, but whatever.

Meanwhile, our piles of recycleable materials were starting to overwhelm us. We started bagging it and piling it in the basement, and it soon took over half of the unfinished portion of our basement. When my husband had initially called the trash company, they told him that there would also be recycling pickup, and they would be sending him information about what day the recycling truck would be here and what they would pick up and things like that.

I don't think the recycling truck would be planning on picking up 17 bags of #2 plastic containers.

We got no recycling information. I started to get frantic. My husband called the trash company several times, but the phone rang and rang and no one answered. The website for the company was no help; it didn't even list the right phone number for the company. It drove me crazy that we were paying $45 a month for a truck to take away a single bag of trash each week. It would take me 10 minutes to go drop that off at the dump. The hourly wage for that would be something like $60 an hour. And I couldn't open my kitchen closet without an avalanche of tin cans and Yoplait containers raining down on me.

I was really, really starting to regret our decision. We received a bill the other day which informed us that if we cancel the service now, we are responsible for the current billing cycle- so we just got charged $90 for the next two months, until the end of October. I calculated what the cost would be for our yearly trash service if we cancelled now and got a dump permit. It would be $25.40/month, or $305.50 per year. Even though we just wasted a whole bunch of money, it would still be worth it to cancel.

So yesterday, I went online and signed up for the dump permit. I ran out in the yard to show my husband the receipt. "See?! The agony is over! We can get rid of our recycle stuff again!" He was as thrilled as I was.

This morning, he said to me, "Wow, so we really have a dump permit? I can actually go to the dump? Hooray!" But he still expressed concern that it would be hard for me to take the trash when I was alone. "Oh come on," I said. "70-year-old ladies take their own trash to the dump in their little Toyota Camrys. Surely I can handle it."

Later on, my husband came in from the backyard while I was checking my email. "Hey, it's a good thing you cancelled the trash pickup. It won't matter anyway.

"My deployment was cancelled, so I'll be able to take the trash myself. I'm not going anywhere."

I never thought I would get so emotional about stinkin' trash. I get a whole year of life with my husband back. God is really good to us.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Catalina Madness at Shaw's

image courtesy of

Well, if you're an avid Shaw's shopper you're probably well aware that there is a catalina promotion running this week on General Mills and Unilever products. In the time that I've been a serious user of coupons, I have found that I am able to do my most successful stockpiling of groceries during these types of sales. Over that time, I've learned a lot about how to get as many groceries as possible for the least possible cost, after making many mistakes along the way!

Sale Basics:

  • These sales are almost always based on shelf prices rather than sale prices. In other words, if you are supposed to buy $30 in products to get a $15 catalina (money-off coupon for your next trip to Shaw's), you would look at the non-sale price to reach your total of $30.
  • You can, and should, use coupons on the items that you are purchasing. I have been able to maximize my savings by ordering coupons that will double at Shaw's (most of the coupons that come out in my local paper are for more than $1.00 and therefore will not double.) Usually there is a preview of the upcoming week's Shaw's ad on on Monday or Tuesday. I check over the items and see what I want to stock up on, and place an order for coupons for those items. I have usually been able to get my coupons by Friday or Saturday of that week.
  • When you receive a catalina, you can "roll" it by using it to pay for your next order.
  • If a catalina does not print, it is often because an item you purchased is not programmed into the system. (I find this is often the case with unusual varieties of certain products.) Shoppers on the Shaw's forums at websites like and are pretty good about reporting their results about which items are working well and which are not. It can also be because you didn't add up the prices correctly. Sometimes the catalina machine might be off (you can tell because it has a little green light when it's on.)
  • If a catalina doesn't print, you have a few options. If you have spent more than you wanted to out of pocket, you could return the items. You won't get your coupons back. If you've only spent a few dollars out of pocket, it's probably not worth it to return the items. I, and many other Shaw's sale shoppers, have not found most Shaw's managers and customer service people to be helpful with getting catalina issues resolved. They will often state that the sale is based on sale prices rather than shelf prices, or that you did not get the catalina because you used coupons. If the deal doesn't work the way I planned, I just go on my merry way.
  • These sales often double or triple (so you could buy $60 and get $30, or buy $90 and get $45.) Check to see if that's the case. It's easier to make fewer trips for more items.
When these sales are going on, I find that they take up more of my time than I want to spend on them. I really don't enjoy shopping- I like getting good deals and not spending more than I have to on groceries, but during weeks like this I end up making at least one trip per day to Shaw's, which I don't particularly relish. So what I do to avoid spending too much time on shopping:
  • On Thursday night, I gather all of the coupons that I have for any products that I might want to buy at that particular sale. At this week's sale, I am interested in Lipton tea (I am a dedicated tea drinker- the rest of America may run on Dunkin' but I run on Lipton...) chex mix, Chex Mix and Fiber One Bars, Honey Nut Cheerios, Suave Shampoo and Bodywash, Q-Tips, Betty Crocker Brownie Mix, and Country Crock.
  • I don't really plan my transactions too much ahead of time; some people find out shelf prices ahead of time and have a plan of what they're buying, and that works well for them. I don't worry about this too much, because I often go to different Shaw's stores with different shelf prices, and if they're out of something, I need to readjust.
  • I find that buying a mix of different items, when possible, tends to draw less attention and that way you aren't clearing shelves so other customers can partake of the sale, too. Also, if you are using coupons that double, you can only use 6 of any one kind of coupon, so keep that in mind when planning purchases.
  • I try not to use a ton of printable coupons at any one time- on this or any other transaction. Not because there's anything wrong with it, but some managers and cashiers can give you a hard time.
  • I started carrying a calculator with me into the store, to keep a running total of my sale prices. (I found it very helpful, but I think I need to have a better quality calculator- I got one for $1 at Wal-mart and the keys aren't very sensitive so I kept making mistakes and getting frustrated.)
  • As I put an item in my cart, I pull out the coupon that I have for it. I keep all the coupons I'm using clipped together so I can just hand them to the cashier when I go to buy the items.
  • I always ask politely if I can use the catalinas to pay for the purchase. Some cashiers don't know if they'll work, but they always go through. You may need to get some "filler" items because your out of pocket total may be less than $0 depending on how many catalinas you have. (I always try to be really nice to the cashiers and baggers at Shaw's, anyway. I worked there in high school... there can be a lot of difficult customers and nice ones are always appreciated.)
  • I try not to make special trips out of the house to go to Shaw's. I will go there on my way home from work or when I am doing other errands. If I'm visiting friends or family and there's a Shaw's nearby, I will sometimes make a quick side trip. I usually do end up going to a few different Shaw's stores, to avoid clearing shelves.
  • I don't buy things I don't want or need, even if they're practically free. These sales generally revolve around highly processed foods, so if I don't feel good about my family eating it, it's not good enough to donate to the food pantry, either.
I can't possibly take a picture of all the things I've bought at Shaw's the last few days- I am a little bit Type-A compulsive and things need to be put away pronto when I get home. This is the load of groceries I got on Saturday- I was visiting my parents and they live within walking distance of two Shaw's stores, so I hit them both. On this trip, I got about $150 worth of groceries for a total of $5.60 out of pocket- I had $20 in catalinas left over. (I should have had $35, but the Nature Valley granola bars weren't programmed into the system and messed up my totals. Not a huge loss.) I also picked up some nice natural & organic reduced items as part of that total. This picture doesn't include some yogurt that I bought for my parents and some rice milk that Diva needed to drink right away.

My food storage areas are ready to explode after several trips like this, but I know we'll eat this stuff up fast- we go through tons of cereal and granola bars every week. Until the next exciting episode...